Intel's Lynnfield-based Core i5 and i7 processors arrived in style last week, boasting phenomenal performance, frugal power consumption, and affordable prices starting at just $200. Ostensibly targeted at "mainstream" audiences, these first examples of Nehalem trickle-down have many of us pondering system upgrades. Lynnfield CPUs won't drop into existing LGA1366 or LGA775 sockets, though, so upgraders will have to seek out new motherboards with 1156-pin Land Grid Arrays and Intel's latest P55 Express chipset.
We looked at a trio of P55 mobos from The Big Three in our chipset launch coverage, but we were unable to come up with a solid recommendation because the Asus and Gigabyte entries carried suggested retail prices of $229 and $250, respectively. That's a heck of a lot to pay for a mid-range processor platform at a time when motherboards have next to no real impact on application or gaming performance. The only upgrades you seem to get over more vanilla models are gimmicky extras that are rarely truly useful, extra SATA and GigE ports that few actually need, and the spoils of a power-phase pissing match between manufacturers, which I suspect may only benefit the most hardcore of liquid-nitrogen-fueled extreme overclockers.
But really, it's the exceptional quality of more affordable mid-range motherboards that makes higher-end variants look a little ostentatious. I've been testing two examples of the breed in Asus' P7P55D and Gigabyte's GA-P55-UD4P. Each has much to offer, but with a few quirks and caveats attached. Keep reading to see if either might be right for the Lynnfield system you've been piecing together in your head.
Asus' P7P55D motherboard
Subtract Deluxe, er, ness
We've already covered the P7P55D's Deluxe cousin, which is currently selling for over $220 online. This standard model costs $70 less at just $150, so you save a lot. The real question is, what do you lose?
A few board layers, for starters. The Deluxe's PCB stacks eight layers and an en vogue two ounces of copper, while the standard model must make do with four floors and one ounce of the conductive stuff. Those differences shouldn't matter when running at stock speeds, but we'll have to see whether it affects the P7P55D's overclocking potential. At least Asus has used fancy electrical components and solid-state capacitors throughout this vanilla model.
Asus also gives you all the essentials in terms of peripherals and connectivity, but little more. The relative lack of auxiliary chips, ports, and other extraneous hardware makes for a clean layout that beautifully illustrates the simple elegance of Intel's Lynnfield/PCH tag team. The fact that the layout feels this spacious even with a dramatically oversized PCH heatsink is even more impressive. Not having a north bridge chip really does free up a lot of real estate.
There's an abstractness to the P7P55D's heatsinks that gives the board a little more aesthetic flair than one might otherwise expect from a basic model. The layers of blue are nicely understated, but they pop nicely off the dark backdrop.
14 power phases ring the P7P55D's CPU socket, five fewer than on the Deluxe. 12 of those phases are dedicated to the processor core with the remaining two assigned to the CPU's uncore elements. Of course, you won't need that many power phases active at all times. The board can dynamically scale the number of power phases it's using based on the system load. Asus also employs a microcontroller to monitor power-phase temperatures and balance the load accordingly, ideally resulting in more stable voltage delivery and lower system temperatures.
There's plenty of clearance around the P7P55D's socket, and the funky single-tab DIMM slots allow memory modules to be removed even with longer graphics cards installed. These slots don't hold memory sticks quite as securely as standard ones, though. If you're trunking your system to a LAN party, you might want to check to make sure your RAM is seated properly before powering things up.
Asus bucks the trend toward edge-mounted SATA ports by mounting the P7P55D's face up on the board. This makes for easier cable routing in extremely tight cases that put the hard drive cage right next to the motherboard tray. However, it also has some clearance consequences. Longer, double-wide graphics cards installed in the secondary x16 slot can compromise access to two Serial ATA ports. Of course, that still leaves you with five connected to the P55 PCH.
Longer graphics cards should have no problem extending over the board's low-profile chipset cooler. What the heatsink lacks in height it more than makes up for in sheer area. The cooler is mostly for show, though; the chipset's TDP rating is just 4.7W, so it hardly requires aggressive cooling.
Without a north bridge to worry about, the P7P55D easily accommodates seven expansion slots, including a pair of PCIe x16 slots. The top slot gets a full 16 lanes of PCIe 2.0 from the CPU, while the second slot harnesses four of the not-quite-second-gen PCI Express lanes built into the PCH. Intel labels the P55's eight PCI Express lanes as 2.0, but they only signal at 2.5GT/sgen-one speed. That's still plenty of bandwidth for Gigabit Ethernet and most reasonable auxiliary storage configurations. However, it might be a hindrance to CrossFire configurations.
Nvidia won't endorse even full-bandwidth x16/x4 configurations for SLI, so this full-bandwidth x16, half-bandwidth x4 setup definitely isn't fit for certification. However, the company stamps such slot configs on P55 boards with the "PhysX Ready" label, which means you can dedicate one GeForce to graphics and have another one in the lower-bandwidth slot taking care of PhysX computations.
The P7P55D's port cluster is perhaps best described as complete. All the usual bases have been covered, including digital audio output, FireWire, and eSATA. Unfortunately, the eSATA port isn't of the USB-powered hybrid variety we've seen on some other P55 mobos. I'm also not crazy about the Via VT1828S audio codec sitting behind the board's array of audio jacks. Sure, it supports Blu-ray playback, but it can't encode multi-channel digital audio on the fly, forcing surround-sound gamers to use the board's analog audio outputs.
As far as I can tell, the vanilla P7P55D's BIOS is just as well-equipped for tweaking and overclocking as that of its Deluxe counterpart. Both offer ample ranges and granularity for clock speed and voltage controls, a wealth of memory timing options, integrated flashing utilities, support for multiple configuration profiles, and a well-organized, easy-to-use interface that Asus has been carefully massaging for years.
Considering how long it's been developing motherboard BIOSes, you'd think Asus would have a few more tricks up its sleeve on the fan control front. Apparently not. The CPU and system fan headers can be toggled between three pre-defined fan speed profiles, but that's about it. I'd like to see options that define minimum fan speeds and target temperatures in addition to some control over how aggressively fan voltages increase in response to rising temperatures. Asus is apparently working to bring better fan speed controls to its motherboard BIOSes, and we saw a hint of their efforts with the 785G-based M4A785TD-V EVO. No such luck with Asus' current crop of P55 offerings, though.